How a racing game featuring boats ever became as renowned as Hydro Thunder I will never know. Think about it. A designer had the balls to walk up to his boss and say "Okay, I've got this great idea. A racer, but with boats." Well thank god someone at Midway was insane enough to green light the unique take on the racing genre because it brought much joy when it hit the arcades and Sega Dreamcast back in 1999.
Fast forward 11 years. Midway no longer exists and we haven't heard a peep about Hydro Thunder in over a decade. What a perfect time for developer Vector Unit to release Hydro Thunder Hurricane on Xbox Live.
Hydro Thunder Hurricane (Xbox Live Arcade)
Developer: Vector Unit
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Released: July 28th, 2010 MSRP: $15 or 1200 Microsoft Points
Avoiding the extremely tempting reference to an Andy Samberg song lets look at what works and what fails in Hydro Thunder Hurricane. Smash through a dock, jump off of a 500 ft waterfall, take that path to the left before jumping into the secret area and flying over the electrified power lines to the finish line. That's the first level of Hydro Thunder Hurricane. Nothing from the level design to the boats is typical about the game. It seems that the designers wanted to take every fantasy location they could think of and have you race through them. You're not going to be discussing the dazzling water effects, or amazing texture detail of the boats in Hurricane but you don't need to be the Gears of War 3 of racing games to be fun. Hurricane manages to pull this off by using unique tracks and surprising obstacles instead of jaw dropping visuals. Of course there's typical race tracks like the Tsunami Bowl, but others like Storming Asgard will have you facing viking ships and Norse gods.
The viking ships and viking gods that come to life are examples of challenges you'll need to overcome. It seems that these themed stages always have some asshole A.I. obstacle, like the viking or police boat, with the goal of making the game suck. Somehow they have the uncanny ability to avoid all 18 other players to focus solely on you. It kinda pissed you off. I also didn't like that you were able to get stuck on top of your opponents which would have a tendency to ruin my entire run. They're both a small part of the overall experience, but I felt like I was either being singled out by the unavoidable A.I., or getting pissed off because of an odd collision system.
The theme's are great though. Driving through Area 51 where you'll encounter UFO's, or Monster Island where you get an up close and personal encounter with Nessie are a fun way to break up the monotony of driving in the same circle over and over again. Every lap the track changes and you'll need to keep on your toes if you want to get first place. You'll only get credits toward unlocking things if you manage to be in the top 3 at the end of your race so mastering your boat and learning the secrets of each track becomes extremely important. In total, 8 tracks are offered for players to unlock as well as 3 other modes, and 9 vehicles which include Novice, Pro, and Expert levels. You'll start out as a Novice but continually placing in the top 3 will unlock Pro, and Expert boats. The level of your boat actually determines the skill level of your opponents and the size of your reward. If you've unlocked an Expert boat and can control it without expertly disassembling your controller against a wall as your boat careens into every single thing on the screen, you'll be rewarded with a substantially larger amount of credits. Speaking of unlocking things, expect to frequently. After my second race I was bombarded with more pop-ups than on a porn website. 2 races in and I'd managed to unlock 2 avatar awards, 70 of the 200 achievement points, a new boat, 2 new tracks and multiple new modes. After a few hours I had more Hydro Thunder options for my avatar than anyone would ever want.
The announcer makes the game. If you're turning it on for the first time, someone shouting "HYDRO THUNDER HURRICANE" at the beginning may make you cock an eyebrow, but if you're a veteran of the series you'll smile when you realize that the over the top presentation has remained intact in this iteration. Sadly that's about the only thing standing out in the sound department. The music is forgettable at best and some of the sound effects, like the explosion sound effects are underwhelming. If smashing through a wooden plank is more jarring than an 800 horsepower boat hitting a wall at 300 miles per hour and erupting into flames, well then you should make a few adjustments. Even those complaints are mostly forgivable because you'll quickly reset your vehicle, or be too busy focusing on the next boost location to jam out to the tunes. A co-pilot lets you know when you're running low on boost and is there to taunt you at the end of a race with remarks like "it's probably the boats fault" if you come in last. He'll make you smile once or twice but by your 50th race the remarks may get tiresome.
Being able to unlock everything in a few hours does not mean that you'll be finishing the game quickly. You can unlock all of the important items by completing the 8 race tracks, but that opens 24 ring master tracks, 8 gauntlet tracks, and 10 championship challenges. The second mode, ring master has you flying through rings placed in each level as fast as you can. If you hit every ring you'll have plenty of the boost you'll need to get a good time, but if you miss even one, you'll have to hit the next ring before you get any of that precious boost back. Its an interesting way to extend the tracks and will occasionally show players some alternate routes that can help improve their best time in race mode. Speaking of best times, its cool seeing how well you're doing against your friends times on Xbox Live as it's displayed in real time on your screen.
The third mode is Gauntlet. Gauntlet is similar except instead of going through rings you're avoiding red barrels of death. Not much else to explain there. I've seen courses that are similar to both of these in other racers. They try to extend the single player experience and I've never been a big fan. Hurricane doesn't change my opinion but it is good that you have a different type of challenge on a map you've completed 20 times. The fourth option is Championship. Championship mode is a welcome addition to the campaign as it combines challenges from all categories forcing you to mix your knowledge of the track with the skills you learned in the other two modes. For some reason I like that more than doing them one at a time. It just meant that I had much more anger when I would get stuck on a track that threw one of my least favorite modes into the mix as the last challenge. Especially frustrating when you're on the last round of 5.
Of course there's still multiplayer to talk about. You have your standard 4 player local split-screen that allows you to take your team online, or you can go at it solo and see how you fair on the high seas alone. You can partake in a standard race or a 2v2 rubber ducky mode where one player will have to be a duck, and the other will need to get him across the finish line using any means necessary. All the boosts have been replaced with a standard level boost to balance out the matches and it doesn't affect game play much, but it will be hard for some players to break the habit of constantly going for the red boost locations. The only problem I had with multiplayer as a whole is it sometimes took quite awhile to find a match with someone and when you did, it would occasionally be with a moron who didn't know what the ready button did. If one person doesn't ready up, you're forced to sit there and wait for them. All that needed to be added was a timer and the problem wouldn't exist. If you have friends who like the Hydro Thunder series though, it'll be no problem and you can take your maritime warfare to the seas of Xbox Live.
I love getting a good value for my money. If a game can offer me 50 entertaining challenges to overcome and then multiplayer I can happily spend my hard earned cash. It only has a few shortcomings, one of them, being in the over-saturated racing genre, but new comers and veterans alike will enjoy themselves.
Score: 8.0 -- Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, it is worth your time and cash.
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